We’re back! A special episode of NFC during the worldwide COVID-19 quarantine where we discuss the film Persona (1966) written and directed by Ingmar Bergman.
We’re back! A special episode of NFC during the worldwide COVID-19 quarantine where we discuss the film Persona (1966) written and directed by Ingmar Bergman.
In the wake of an embarrassing game 3 playoff loss to the Cleveland Cavaliers, Kyle Lowry was asked about what it is that makes the Cavaliers a great team. He replied, “they’ve got LeBron James and no one can close the gap on him.”
Now, LeBron is indisputably one of the greatest basketball players of all time. But Kyle is trying to beat LeBron, and many people who heard these words (including yours truly) interpreted them as a sign that Kyle, and many of the Raptors, were mentally checked out. Defeated before the series is even over. After all, if “no one can close the gap on [LeBron]”, what’s the point of even playing?
This got me thinking. What is a good way of approaching your role models, those people that you admire, the ones you dare call your ‘heroes’? How do you maintain a healthy respect for their skills, without deifying them into an unreachable realm that makes you prone to excusing your own deficiencies?
I often hear the phrase ‘never meet your heroes,’ used in common parlance. Presumably this is meant to prevent the disappointing realization that one’s heroes are just people, with real emotions, real flaws and potentially very little to say to a star-struck fan. But why is this bad? Shouldn’t this realization be a beacon of hope that we too, someday, can accomplish the same things we admire in our role models, while still grappling with our own messy humanity? Shouldn’t Kyle look at LeBron on the court and say, he’s just another guy shooting hoops, drinking water, missing free throws. He’s not a God, he’s just a genetically gifted athlete with a Versa-climber.
Maybe not. Maybe really what we’re scared of is this very realization. The fact that our heroes are not Gods, and yet they still do what they do. How can you be that athletic, at that height, for so long?
Plato’s realm of ideal forms comes to mind. There are no perfect spheres in this world, but all spheres are an imperfect realization of the ideal Sphere. Is it better to keep imagining the ideal basketball player, or meet an imperfect (but damn close) manifestation of that ideal? What motivates you to improve? Despite Plato’s ideal realm, much of Greek mythology has distinctly anthropomorphic Gods, with human flaws. Presumably, the Greeks felt this made the Gods more relatable, and made their myths more effective. Yet, many modern Gods are undoubtedly much more abstract, and unhuman. (A clear exception to this is many sects of Christianity which accept the holy trinity, a resolution that combines aspects of both the ideal, and the human aspects of God).
Setting aside heroes, what about our enemies, our ‘villains’? Should we humanize them (exposing our common humanity, and holding hands to sing Kumbaya), but keep our heroes sterile, unsullied by the humbling reality of being a real, shitting, sneezing, tax-paying human being?
I think this unification is in many ways futile. It makes it harder for us to fight for any cause and traps us in a pit of nuance and indecision. It is much easier to hate the Bogeyman than it is to fight a man on the toilet (shout out to Tyrion for still getting it done).
Perhaps a reasonable approach is a good, healthy amount of respectful hatred for both our heroes and our villains. Perhaps what I really wanted Kyle to do was quote Wes Mantooth from Anchorman: “from deep down in my stomach, with every inch of me, I pure, straight hate you. But goddammit, [LeBron] do I respect you!”
What say you, Rachit?
The 15th NeverFromConcentrate podcast about philanthropy, charity and how best to express one’s ‘love for mankind’. We talk about Henry David Thoreau, Steve Jobs, and Yuval Noah Harari.
Karma optimization has a built in crassness to it’s connotation. It feels a bit gross to maximize, optimize, perfect the goal-centred, utilitarian approach that Dev and the Church of the Karma Bureau demand from us. It feels robotic. It feels algorithmic. Like you said, there aren’t just a finite set of problems that we can identify, quantify, and conquer that’ll bring us to this utopic land where Dev and the Bureau can retire to the back 9 and a life of beer by the beach. This perfect world impossibility is a reality we need to actively confront when embarking on any sort of ethical discussion. In the past, this kind of realization has left me in a gridlock of moral paralysis. If I am to optimize my karma, and even in the best case scenario, the whole world optimizes together, this utopic sustainable land will remain a fabricated dreamscape. So I’d ask myself the ever circular, almost annoying nihilistic adolescent question, what’s the point? Why even bother? How do I navigate this seemingly impossible ethical world, somehow balancing my selfish interests, without condemning myself to complete self sacrifice, all managed with no easy black and white moral compass to direct my behaviour? The short answer to that question is I don’t know. But, it’s more of a “I don’t think it’s possible to know for certain”, type of I-don’t-know. Before I spring off the diving board to a deeper conclusion to that question, I feel a bit obligated to say that I was definitely oversimplifying the moral duty to charity in my first post. It was a good exercise to try and understand the extreme side of the consequentialist perspective of charitable duty.
Now why I say it’s not possible to know for certain lies in a sad realization about our friends Dev and Slav. Whether you’re inspired by a form of empathetic guilt, or enriched by the euphoric bubbles of altruistic compassion, or are striving to be a “good guy”, there isn’t a real Karma bureau accounting for your efforts. There isn’t a Dev, the Accountant, or a Slav, the Auditor out there. Taking a deep dive into some cinematic cheese, there is, however, a Dev and Slav inside your heart. And that internal Dev and Slav should be consulted upon to figure out the calibration for the compass, to figure out what makes you feel good ultimately when it comes to charity.
But how do we actually end up acting on this internal reflection? The deontological perspective, as you brought up in your post, may help us find some answers here. What’s rooted in this perspective is an embracement of a series of human evolutionary tendencies when it comes to morality. There’s a natural admiration of the virtuous individual, with an empathetic ear, with a strong sense of duty, with a conviction of yes and no answers to difficult questions. There’s a reassurance to the finality and clarity that it gives people. And apart from this role model “good person” ideal that’s easy and natural to strive to, the deontological perspective gives clear answers to people to make decisions and act on them. As for the world of the morally grey, they’re stuck in a gridlock of indecision with no exit in sight. Even if the truth is actually grey, how do you become operational and stay out of the purgatory of moral paralysis of analysis? My answer here is to embrace the arbitrariness of the moral grey by making a new rule. The “Time-Sensitive-Aribitrary-Deadline-Decision-Making” rule. TSADDM. The name is still a work in progress. But what this means is that I fix some arbitrary deadline, “one week from today”, spend time having the continued analysis that I’ve been having, then after the deadline arrives, make a decision, and follow through with it. Period.
Ok, so what exactly is ‘logical, effective, and morally responsible’? It’s nice to conclude this, but is it just highfalutin equivocation to make us feel better without actually doing much?
Even if we accept that we don’t need to burden ourselves with ‘empathy’, how do we know when our compassion is enough to please Dev? How exactly do we reconcile all of the different ways to account for our karma? Does Dev use GAAP or IFRS? Do we need ‘charity advisors’ that spend years analyzing different strategies towards maximizing our ROK (Return on Karma)?
Bloom’s argument seems logical – compassion is like empathy infused with the B word. We stay clear of the emotional pits of despair, while trying our best to solve the root problems that ail the people we are trying to help. Yet, of course, even the B word needs its own B word (it’s B word recursion!). Bloom himself agrees that empathy is still very useful in relationships: the trope of the man who is always trying to solve problems instead of just ‘listening’ is the first thing that I thought of when I read about his new book. Further, while empathy may not, like Bloom argues, scale well, it is nevertheless an incredible motivator. I remember more about the girl in Schindler’s List and Matt Damon in Saving Private Ryan than any of my high school lessons on WW2.
Let me put on my deontological hat. What if a world filled with compassion leads to insidious side effects that a world with empathy does not? Perhaps we are a species that needs to empathize with stories on the level of the individual to truly be motivated to help? If everyone, in an act of true compassion, simply set a single recurring payment of $4000 a year to their favourite vetted charity – would that lead to a better world? Maybe in the short term, but is this really what we imagine when we think of ‘charity’ (the love of humanity)? Is the world really just filled with a finite set of problems to be solved, which upon being solved, will lead to some sort of utopia? I say no. We will always have problems, and we need empathy to constantly motivate us to help others solve their problems. Being compassionate may make us ‘feel better’ about just the act of helping, but being empathetic makes the human condition worthwhile.
A few weeks before he died in the Alaskan wilderness, Christopher McCandless underlined a line from Boris Pasternak’s Dr. Zhivago: “an unshared happiness is not happiness.” I think the same applies to despair in the human race. We are comforted by knowing that other people understand our own condition. Take medicine: Bloom mentions that what we want from doctors is compassion, not empathy. But is it really? Or do patients ‘crave empathy’ and the compassion is actually perceived in a negative light?
Perhaps we humans need to imagine living the life of a Harambe or a Tilikum in order to actually do anything about animal captivity. Perhaps it’s exactly why there are laws against publishing images from factory farms (whereas there are no laws against publishing the statistics). The human species is built on empathy, and maybe, despite its faults, we need to work with it instead of trying to simply remove it from the equation.
So, after Dev is done with the Karma paperwork, make sure he consults Slav, the karma auditor and freelance karma collection consultant. I hear he knows exactly the right balance of compassion and empathy that gives you the best 5 year ROK.
Meet Dev. Dev is an accountant. He doesn’t work at KPMG, or for the Canada Revenue Agency. Dev doesn’t work at a traditional accounting firm at all. He is a karma accountant. He keeps track of all conscious moral agent’s behaviours and their moral tallies. You use the right shoulder lane to pass other people -1, you give a homeless guy the change in your pocket +17, you adopt a kitten +38, you spend $3337 of your disposable income on a TV and don’t spend it on saving a child’s life in Africa -1000.
You get your Karma report at the end of the month, and see this giant negative integer staring at your emotional gut. You don’t feel like a bad person, but yet your purchasing history tells you otherwise. You submit a formal Karma Claim to Dev. Dev responds:
“A moral act now is different than it was when you were developing as a moral agent. Perhaps 100 000 years ago, caring for your local human community with compassion and kindness was enough, but with the current accessibility of a global currency, and honest charitable organizations, we, here at the Karma Bureau, expect more of you.”
Morality doesn’t scale well. Our evolutionary history, as Dev described, programmed us in a limited capacity to naturally extend our care to small numbers of people, often in your local social group. Guided by our empathetic compass, we often reach out when we can try and put ourselves in the person’s position. It’s easier to help someone you see suffering, feel their pain viscerally, and then relish the high when you assist in alleviating that pain. Who starts cancer charities? A loved one that lost someone to cancer, or a survivor of the disease.
Paul Bloom, a professor of psychology and cognitive science at Yale University, argues against the use of empathy in our approach to charity. Apart from it’s inherent biases of empathizing with people that you share similar characteristics with, Bloom argues that an empathetic guide to kindness can be debilitating. Feeling another’s pain, really living through the emotional exhaustion of the experience of their world, is exactly what it sounds like, painful. And after a certain point, it becomes difficult to keep up with the kindness. Selfish mental health control mechanisms, which are often unconscious, overtake and end up halting the empathy kindness train. What Professor Bloom suggests otherwise is compassion based kindness. A kindness that extends by feeling positive about the act of helping, without the need to emotionally empathize. And this approach, produces better long term results, while not discriminating who to help, regardless of relatability or physical distance to oneself.
As you alluded to, the consequentialist perspective, may be the correct ideal to work towards. With results at the focus, and using the active tool of compassion based altruism, optimizing your monthly karma report is not only possible, but has selfish positive feelings at its core. And while charity isn’t natural, and helping a child drowning in a one foot pond of water 1000 miles away isn’t either, as Dev described, the human being as a moral agent needs to graduate and move past what’s natural, and move into what’s logical, effective, and morally responsible.
Here’s a thought experiment: a man is shopping on Black Friday and stumbles across an unbelievable deal on a 4K TV: $3337 off the sticker price! Unfortunately, there are only 10 units remaining, and the man sees a few people in line with more streaming in. Nearby the TV sale, the man also sees a small child playing close to a water fountain. Suddenly, the child loses balances, knocks their head on the concrete wall of the fountain, and falls into the water. No one seems to notice this fall except the man. From a moral perspective, is it ok for the man to ignore the child (knowing full well that he or she may die) in exchange for securing his spot for the TV?
It seems that for most people, in this scenario, the decision to save $3337 over the life of a human being is not a very difficult one. Of course the man should save the child.
Yet, we live in world where donating $3337 can save a life (GiveWell.org estimates that a donation of $3337.06 to the ‘Against Malaria Foundation’ will save a life in Africa.) So why don’t we feel morally obligated to donate as much as we can of our income for the benefit of other human beings?
This is the crux of the argument put forward by the effective altruism movement lead by Peter Singer, William MacAskill (both philosophy professors) and others. On Sam Harris’ podcast a few weeks ago, MacAskill talked about how he is now donating close to 40% of his income to charities and has been donating significant amounts ever since he was a PhD student (which gives me no excuse).
On the surface, I think I agree with this general movement, but have yet to put my money where my thoughts are. What’s your experience with charity, Rachit? Before you answer, let me note a few more thoughts that are applicable to charity in general (and not just effective altruism).
First, the modern concept of ‘charity’ feels bogged down by its ties to the distribution of abstract money (which then carries with it all the connotations of an Italian mob boss casually slipping an envelope into your suit pocket). The word itself seems to be originally free from such connections, originating in its modern form from the King James’ bible (as one of the Christian triplets ‘faith, hope and charity’) as the English translation of the French translation of the Latin translation of the Greek ‘agape’ (an unconditional love for others). The more high-brow term ‘philanthropy’ literally means ‘the love of humanity.’ Unfortunately it seems that we are ruled by the economic systems we create, and our language has now morphed these two words to be much more closely linked to monetary distribution, rather than their original abstract meaning. Perhaps this is why there is an increasing tendency to associate ‘philanthropic acts’ with a certain class of people, and rarely think about ways in which everyone can express their love.
Second: motivations. Does it matter whether you are driven to donate money out of a selfish need to parade your virtuosity to others or out of a genuine concern for the well-being of others? A consequentialist would probably say no. A deontologist would probably say yes, definitely. I would probably say, ‘it depends on the type of philanthropy.’ Does a child in Burkina Faso care whether their anti-malaria bed net was paid for by someone who then immediately shared their donation on Facebook? I don’t think so. But perhaps the motivations of a volunteer at a soup kitchen or an employee of a non-profit do matter.
Finally, charity as meaning. Christian theology has charity as one of its core tenets (as evidenced by the very etymology of the word). This may sound obvious from our current Western ideology, but is it? Although I haven’t read much of his work, Nietzsche called this approach a fundamentally weak ‘slave morality.’ By-and-large, nature does not have charity. Nature favours the most fit to survive, and uses instances of animals as mere cogs in the grand goal of creating a stronger species. Perhaps we are still struggling to reconcile older Christian theology, with many of the Nietzsche-an components of the 21st century world. It’s up to us to define what it means to be ‘charitable’, and whether we should all strive to be philanthropists.
The 14th NeverFromConcentrate podcast with our guest, Hershal. We talk about politics, fame, and narcissism (and of course, digress into the subject of Donald Trump, and the role of the internet on our current ideology).
Here we go. I’m about to get the perfect, baseball-like rock, and throw my best Aroldis-Chapman-like 2-seam fastball right into the nearest glass wall. You ready?
Like a waxy red-delicious apple that falls on the supermarket floor, your ego, Hershal, may not appear bruised, but what does it really matter? It’s dead and flavourless inside – the sad result of the modern myopic pursuit of profit at the expense of true character and virtue.
Boom! Your ego, and my wall, shattered all at once. But now my wall is broken, and I feel cold and sad. Words hurt like 2-seam fastballs.
Let me rephrase my fire. One man’s trite musings are another man’s insight porn. And we, here at NFC, strive to be the very best pornographers we can be. Your first post, Hershal, was way too safe-for-work for my tastes. Of course, a true appreciation of the subtleties of fame requires a Steinbeck-esque tragedy epic set during the depression in the hills of Northern California. But (to continue this metaphor), we can still derive Cliffnote-climaxes from our 500 word posts, without having to set forth on a lifetime of love and true physical intimacy (in the hills of Northern California). What I’m trying to say, Hershal, is that your first post just didn’t ‘do it for me’.
Now on to your second, and definitely much more ‘NSFW’, post. Both of the categories you described: celebrity as ‘pathology’ and celebrity as ‘commodity’, teeter on the edge of tautology and science. I found the NPI questionnaire and completed it with a score of 13/40. I failed! US Celebrities scored a mean of 17.8 according to one study. The mean scores of American undergraduates seems to increase over time (from the 1980s to the mid 2000s), perhaps pointing to the rise of self-promotion on the internet, reality TV shows, and helicopter-parents that treat them as deities. Or does it? Like you alluded to, Academic publications have many flaws, and this particular ‘Inventory’ questionnaire is perhaps a first attempt at measuring ‘Narcissism’ that really just ends up begging-the-question (at least with the relation between narcissism and celebrity). For example, take the following statement pair (you are supposed to choose which of the two you identify with most):
1. I have a natural talent for influencing people.
2. I am not good at influencing people.
If you are a famous artist, you are, by definition, good at influencing people. You have succeeded at influencing some amount of people to watch your show, to listen to you music, or to purchase your merchandise. The same can be said (on a smaller scale) of local ‘celebrities’ who observe 200 likes on their Insta photo, and conclude the same thing. The ‘celebrity as commodity’ category you described is based on this fundamental property. So as a celebrity you either have to delude yourself into believing you’re nothing special, or you’re labeled a narcissist for correctly identifying what other people have already proven (i.e. you are good at influencing people, you like to be the centre of attention, etc.).
Celebrity as way to spur capitalism, while true, definitely also seems to be a part of the definition of being a celebrity. I like Bon Iver’s music. I buy Bon Iver’s merchandise. Justin Vernon does a commercial for, I don’t know, Snickers. I think, hey, Justin Vernon eats Snickers. Then I’m at the Gas station and have a sweet tooth and buy a Snickers because it makes me think of a cabin in Wisconsin.
But why should I care that Justin Vernon likes Snickers? Well, maybe I don’t care that Vernon or any other celebrity likes Snickers any more than you or Rachit like Snickers. But it makes sense for Mars to ask Vernon to endorse Snickers because a lot more people are familiar with him than you or Rachit. Again, not Rocket Science, simply a byproduct of being known by many people.
Perhaps we’re looking for some deeper reason to choose one action over another, and in Nietzsche’s Godless world, we deify celebrities like we used to deify monarchs. Or maybe that’s just a pornographic simplification that hides the banal, trite reality. Celebrities are people who are known by many people, and it is easier than ever to be known by many people and benefit from (or suffer due to) all of the associated side-effects.
First things first, I’d be remiss if I didn’t address Valentin’s dismissive categorization of the content of my post. Trite musings, you say?! If you’d intended to disparage me with these words, it may be mildly irritating to know that you unequivocally failed. Not only did my ego remain unbruised, but you also gave me an idea for the title of my future memoir: “Trite Musings: The Life and Times of Hershal Pandya.”
Speaking more generally, I’d argue that in tackling a subject as broad and expansive as fame, anything short of a 15,000 word dissertation could correctly be classified as “trite.” Even the evolutionary analysis you provided, while offering a good framework, tells us very little about how fame is interpreted and reproduced in the modern era. Any nuanced exploration of the subject would invariably require one to delve further into the milieu of relevant sociological and psychological research to understand exactly why fame manifests itself and the various forms it can take. To harken it back to an evolutionary holdover isn’t wrong, but it’s a bit like trying to explain the act of murder by saying “it goes back to survival of the fittest.” It’s certainly part of the explanation, but it doesn’t offer much real insight into specific acts of terror or genocide. Valentin, in your attempt to spit fire onto my trite musings, all you really did was pull the pin on the fire extinguisher, unleashing even more trite musings into the NFC ether. Just as the man who lives in a glass house shouldn’t throw stones, the man who lives in a house built of trite musings, shouldn’t, er, call the kettle black? Fuck it, I’m bailing on this metaphor.
On a serious note, Valentin’s post actually inspired me to do a bit of research to figure out what the good ol’ social scientists have to say about the topic-at-hand. Surprisingly, it appears to be a relatively underexplored territory within the discipline of sociology. I say “surprisingly” because, when it comes to social science research, I generally assume that every single area of every single discipline has been covered repeatedly as part of a mass-conspiracy perpetrated by academic journals to perpetuate their existence in otherwise economically impractical research disciplines. I’m still working out the specifics of this conspiracy theory, but as proof I can offer my anecdotal evidence of googling the phrase “sociology journals,” and, within 30 seconds, finding an article entitled “Reflections on the Use of Visual Methods in a Qualitative Study of Domestic Kitchen Practices.” What the fuck is a “kitchen practice?” Does this just mean cooking?
In the limited research that exists, the prevailing analysis seems to group fame or “celebrity” (the word that is more commonly used in the research) into two main categories: (1) celebrity as pathology and (2) celebrity as commodity.
In the former category, researchers have generally proceeded under the assumption that there are some shared mental traits possessed by celebrities (and those who aspire towards celebrity) that can help us understand their behaviour. Researchers have theorized that these same mental traits also have a tendency to make fame an inherently negative or corruptible force. Of course, it’s difficult to quantifiably prove any of this, and much of the research points to one particular study from a 2009 book written by, of all people, Dr. Drew. The study, which involved administering the Narcissistic Personality Inventory (NPI) to a sample of 200 celebrities, was actually fairly groundbreaking, as gaining access to celebrities for academic research had traditionally proved to be very problematic. Unsurprisingly, the study found that celebrities ranked higher on the NPI index than the average American, ultimately lending credence to the researchers’ hypothesis that “narcissism is not a byproduct of celebrity, but a primary motivating force that drives people to become celebrities.” As an interesting aside: reality stars had the highest NPI scores, followed closely by comedians, actors, and then musicians.
In the latter category, researchers have examined the concept of fame/celebrity as it exists strictly for the purpose of spurring capitalism. The research argues that celebrities are created and trotted out by the media for the explicit purpose of driving consumption. The research would argue that even the purest of celebrities—those we’d consider to have attained fame purely based on skill or artistic merit—are essentially just content creators to be exploited by media outlets. I’d argue that the media’s role in creating celebrities is much less prominent than it used to be at present, but even those who emerge organically as a result of public approval are quickly coopted into the traditional media framework. Take, for example, the surprise star of the last Presidential debate, Ken Bone. Within 24 hours of becoming an online sensation, Ken Bone had been trotted out all over the traditional media, from local news affiliates to Jimmy Kimmel Live. We’re now almost a full week removed from the debate and publications are still getting mileage from scouring through his reddit history and posting sensationalist headlines using his name. Meanwhile, Ken Bone is trying to derive any economic benefit he can from the situation, shilling for uber, and selling official t-shirts via his twitter account. Just today, I saw that some costume companies have put together sexy Ken Bone Halloween costumes that people can purchase online. In less than a week, an entire economy has popped up around Ken Bone. I’ve heard that there are a lot of barriers that prevent economic development in Third World nations, but I wonder if the path to growth is to just create more Ken Bones.
The question still remains, however: even if I subscribe to the notion that all celebrities are either diseased narcissists or explicit agents of capitalism (which I’m not entirely sure I do), what is it about celebrities that makes them so compelling to us? Why do we buy the clothes they endorse? Why do we click on the headline about their scandals? Aside from the evolutionary analysis—which certainly has its merits—I saw some research that reinforced Rachit’s idea about how celebrities help us fill our insatiable need for a deity to worship, and other research that simply said that we aspire towards their rung on the social hierarchy. Intuitively, both of these explanations seem apt enough, and I really have no further analysis to contribute here. This post is essentially just a meta-analysis of other research that is out there in the social science zeitgeist. Meta-reviews are great because you can just regurgitate other people’s conclusions without adding anything new of your own. Meta-reviews are like the Desiigner of academic journal articles.